Hort stories: Leonid Stein

by Vlastimil Hort
5/30/2019 – During his peak the Ukrainian born Soviet Grandmaster Leonid Stein (November 12, 1934 – July 4, 1973) was one of the best players of the world. He had a fantastic flair for the attack and was famous for his ability to demolish his opponents quickly. But fortune did not smile on him. Vlastimil Hort knew Stein well and shares memories. | Photo: Alina l'Ami

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Fast and quick: Leonid Stein

As a junior, Vishy Anand played incredibly fast and brought his opponents again and again into time-trouble. Today, Leonid Stein is less known than the former world champion, but he was also famous for his fast and quick play. The Ukrainian master already showed his talent and his speed when he was just ten years old and in serious tournament games he often (and in contrast to his more contemplative opponents) used only 20 minutes of his thinking time!

But no, life was not at all a bed of roses for Leonid Stein. His cake of life did not contain many raisins to pick. In fact, Stein suffered from a severe heart disease, probably a result of malnutrition during World War II, and when he came to tournaments he often looked pale and exhausted.

Leonid Stein

Leonid Stein, Amsterdam 1964 | Photo: Dutch National Archive

We met at many chess events. Though we first locked horns, we later became friends. He was human and honest and also treated his chess colleagues this way.

Right, right, but the other way round

Hastings, Christmas Congress 1967/68, Premier

Rk. Tit. Name Country 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Pts.
1 GM Vlastimil Hort
  ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 1 ½ 1 ½ 6.0 / 9
2 GM Florin Gheorghiu
½   ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 1 ½ 1 6.0 / 9
3 GM Alexey S Suetin
½ ½   ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 1 1 6.0 / 9
4 GM Leonid Stein
½ ½ ½   ½ ½ ½ 1 1 1 6.0 / 9
5 GM Predrag Ostojic
0 ½ ½ ½   ½ 1 ½ 1 ½ 5.0 / 9
6 IM Julio P Kaplan
½ 0 ½ ½ ½   ½ ½ ½ ½ 4.0 / 9
7 IM Andrew Jonathan Whiteley
0 ½ ½ ½ 0 ½   ½ ½ ½ 3.5 / 9
8 GM Raymond Keene
½ 0 0 0 ½ ½ ½   ½ ½ 3.0 / 9
9 IM William R Hartston
0 ½ 0 0 0 ½ ½ ½   1 3.0 / 9
10 IM Michael J Basman
½ 0 0 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ 0   2.5 / 9

Basically, none of the foreign players was happy about the result or the conditions of this tournament. The new young English generation was still in school or developing elsewhere and everything in this tournament was very frugal — the Victoria Hotel offered only "Breakfast & Dinner". The organizers had decided to skip lunch for the players.

Leonid Stein was the player from the Soviet Union, and he was yearning for a modern, Western suit, and I agreed to help him as translator while he was looking for one. We went to a gentlemen's outfitters nearby. Back then, all outfitters in England were of high quality. Leonid immediately stormed to the shelf with classic suits. Trousers, jacket and waistcoat. He was particularly impressed by the waistcoat and paraded in his new outfit proud as a peacock. But oh, my dear, he had put on the waistcoat the wrong way, the buttons to the back and open.  But the salesman was a gentleman and when asked to help Stein to button up he did not bat an eyelid and pointed the mistake out to Stein. However, I had to pinch myself firmly not to laugh out loud.

The situation was more funny than embarrassing and a saying by Bogoljubow came to my mind: "Right, right, but the other way round." It was one of Boguljubow's quirks to praise and to criticize his unfortunate opponents at the same time.

Stein finally bought suit and waistcoat and to thank me for my help he invited me to a cup of hot English tea. While we drank the tea he told me about a curious incident that had happened to him in Baikal in 1967.

One day I got an invitation to play a simul in the depths of Siberia. Why not, I said to myself? A bit later I even got a call. It was the secretary of the organiser who was to offer me even better conditions. Now I was very curious. The organiser, the director of the wood-combine, was a passionate chess player but unfortunately he was also a bad loser.

Leonid SteinI was asked to take that seriously into account. He was a very generous sponsor: I was allowed to visit the scene of crime a few days earlier, a lot of presents and extras were raining down on me and the whole surrounding was fantastic. Therefore I did not mind to treat my sponsors with kid gloves. But it was difficult! Because the director had no clue at all about chess and after an endless game I was relieved when I could finally give a perpetual. Draw!

'Damn it', my opponent cursed after the game. 'I have played against Botvinnik, Karpov, Spassky, and other famous grandmasters. Always a draw! Why can I never win a game?'

I firmly bit my tongue to avoid saying things I would come to reget, and was keen to take the next train to Moscow to forget this terrible game quickly.


The Interzonal Tournament in Sousse 1967. During the tournament the FIDE awarded the grandmaster title to a couple of players. Eduard Gufeld (USSR), second of Leonid Stein, was one of the new grandmasters.

I witnessed the following scene that took place at the pool of the hotel. Gufeld, quite tipsy, and with two bottles of Crimean champagne under his arm and a couple of cans with Russian caviar in his pocket, felt very much at ease with everything and the world. Swaying slightly he approached the next best person at the pool. It was Viktor Korchnoi. "Viktor Lvovich, now we are finally colleagues. Can I invite you to a little drink?" Korchnoi's devastating answer came quick like a shot: "We two, colleagues? Never! You can call Mato Damjanović colleague, but not me!"

On the next rest day I took a taxi to go to the weekend bazaar where camels were said to be on sale. The adjourned game Stein vs Hort looked very dubious for Black and to distract myself I went to the camels and asked to be lifted on one of them. To hold on to its hump brings luck, I said to myself. The next morning Stein first missed the win and then even lost the drawn endgame. Did he celebrate too long and too intensively with his new colleague Gufeld? Or did the camel took a deep liking to me? I will never know!


Fast fingers!

Zagreb 1972

Rg. Name 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Pts.
1 Leonid Stein   ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 1 1 1 1 1 9.5 / 13
2 Drazen Marovic ½   ½ ½ 1 ½ 1 0 ½ 1 ½ ½ 1 ½ 8.0 / 13
3 Vlastimil Hort ½ ½   ½ ½ ½ 1 1 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 8.0 / 13
4 Mato Damjanovic ½ ½ ½   1 1 1 ½ ½ 0 1 ½ ½ ½ 8.0 / 13
5 Albin Planinc ½ 0 ½ 0   0 1 ½ 1 ½ 1 ½ 1 1 7.5 / 13
6 Istvan Csom ½ ½ ½ 0 1   0 ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 1 ½ 7.0 / 13
7 Dragoljub Velimirovic ½ 0 0 0 0 1   ½ ½ 1 1 ½ ½ 1 6.5 / 13
8 Mario Bertok 0 1 0 ½ ½ ½ ½   1 0 ½ ½ 1 ½ 6.5 / 13
9 Vlatko Kovacevic ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 ½ ½ 0   ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 6.0 / 13
10 Duncan Suttles 0 0 ½ 1 ½ ½ 0 1 ½   0 ½ 0 1 5.5 / 13
11 Srdjan Marangunic 0 ½ ½ 0 0 ½ 0 ½ ½ 1   ½ 1 ½ 5.5 / 13
12 Dragoljub Minic 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½   ½ ½ 5.5 / 13
13 Vladimir Sr Bukal 0 0 ½ ½ 0 0 ½ 0 ½ 1 0 ½   ½ 4.0 / 13
14 Gedeon Barcza 0 ½ 0 ½ 0 ½ 0 ½ 0 0 ½ ½ ½   3.5 / 13

Leonid was first of all a gambler. Had Stein been born earlier, Dostoyevsky might have chosen him as the main character of his book "The Gambler". Stein was well versed in almost all games and always ready to join a game of Bridge which, however, made him smoke an incredible number of cigarettes.

Leonid Stein | Drawing: Otakar Mašek

He won many, many small tournaments and one of them was a tournament in Zagreb 1972. After the prize-giving ceremony he wanted to celebrate his victory with some of his colleagues and invited us — Mato Damjanović, Dražen Marović, and me — to a small restaurant that was famous for its good food. After dinner, the celebration was to culminate in a round of Bridge.


But for whatever reason, on the way to the restaurant I told stories about how dangerous it was in the Balkans to leave money in your hotel room. And while I explained that it was best to deposit all valuables in the hotel safe Leonid excitedly grabbed his head, rolled his eyes and said: "Oh dear, oh dear, I hope it's not too late!" He then turned on his heel and disappeared quickly in the direction of the hotel. We waited and waited in the restaurant. Did our host, the tournament winner, forget us?

As it later turned out, the apparently well-informed thieves needed no more than 20 minutes to find found the envelope with the prize-money in the locked suitcase, hidden beneath clothes. Fast, faster, fastest! No dinner, no bridge! The money for the first prize was gone!

Leonid described his misfortune in detail. Thank God, the police gave him an officially signed protocol of the incident. "Vlastimil, will our chess federation believe me?" If not, things might have turned out very bad for him.

At that time I already knew that he was suffering from a severe heart condition and thus tried to calm him down as good as possible.

In his peak, in the middle of the 60s, Stein was one of the world's best players. 1963, 1965, 1966 he managed to win the Soviet Championship. His attacking style and his flair in King's Indian positions remain unforgettable.

However, a witch must have cursed him, and he suffered from bad luck in all three of the Interzonals in which he played.

In Stockholm 1962 and in Amsterdam 1964 he failed to qualify for the Candidate Matches because the regulations allowed only a limited number of Soviet players to qualify for the Candidates.

Stein vs Smyslov, 1964

Interzonal Tournament Amsterdam 1964: Stein vs Smyslov as Taimanov and Lilienthal follow the game with Ivkov standing behind | Photo: Dutch National Archive

In Sousse 1967, Reshevsky, Stein and I were fighting for the last remaining qualifying place for the Candidates. In the tournament all three of us had scored 13/21 to share 6th to 8th place. However, only the 6th place qualified for the Candidates, and we had to play a tie-break — a three-player round robin in which each of us had to play four games against the others. Stein was clear favourite but failed to make it! After eight games we all had four points and Reshevsky who had the best Sonneborn-Berger tie-break played in the Candidates.


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Enjoy Capablanca's fine technique, Tal's magic, Lasker's fighting spirit, Petrosian's defensive skills, Smyslov's feeling for harmony, and Alekhine's and Spassky's flair for the attack.


More bad luck

Before going to an international chess event abroad all members of the Soviet delegation had to come to Moscow for a meeting. TTherefore, Stein, who was to play at the European Championship 1973 in Bath in England, in July 1973 went to Moscow where he stayed at the Hotel Rossija. But Stein's heart condition was troubling him, and he should have stayed in bed instead of travelling. But mind often prevails over reason. The emergency ambulance came in the very last minute.

The official announcement was: "Leonid Zakharovich Stein died of heart attack on July 4, 1973". Too early for all, but in particular for his wife and his two small children.

Leonid Stein's grave

In 1983, at the tournament in Dortmund, Gufeld collected money to support Stein's widow and children. As far as I know the players were generous.

There have always been stories about how Stein died. In Dortmund, Gufeld told me his version: "I'm quite sure that a medical student from the last semester injected him the wrong drug. Death came within 30 seconds. What an unlucky fellow!"

In Dortmund Gufeld offered me a draw before and during the game but I proudly declined both and then lost miserably. But that is a different story!

Translation from German: Johannes Fischer

Vlastimil Hort was born January 12, 1944, in Kladno, Czechoslovakia. In the 1970s he was one of the world's best players and a World Championship candidate. In 1979 he moved to West Germany where he still lives. Hort is an excellent blindfold player, a prolific author and a popular chess commentator.


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